This school year I embarked on a journey to introduce my students to Twitter. For the first three quarters of the year, I structured “Twitter projects” to supplement my in-class work and to provide additional support in meeting certain academic objectives. Throughout the course of the year, the number of tweets coming across steadily increased. With some hubris, I believed that I had successfully challenged the trend that teens do not tweet. After a bevy of tweets and exchanges came across to end our third and final Twitter project, the feed went silent. With no “official” fourth quarter Twitter project, our class feed sounded much different. Any tweets now coming across represented more of the proverbial “cricket” noise in an otherwise peaceful environment.
A big part of me wanted to be disappointed. After three quarters of spirited discussion, collaborative work, and intellectual novelties did the silence mean failure? Perhaps it did, but also I realized that I was engaged in a battle much bigger than I was.
Reflecting on this, I decided to go back to some data that I had collected. After the first semester, I used Google Forms to poll students about the Twitter projects. One of the questions I asked them was, “What would make you use Twitter more?” The most popular response was what I consider a Twitter user-interface issue: 31 percent of students wanted it to be “easier to see people ‘replying’ to me” (31%). Next though came two related choices that made much more sense: “better integration into Facebook” (22%) and “others using it more” (19%). I started to realize the scope of my “problem” went beyond a simple high school teacher and an inventive assignment. The locus of the issue lay at the core of how social media and the internet interact.
Despite significant progress with open standards, the internet remains hostile to a multitiered social media experience. For my students, all ardent members of the Facebook army, social media exists inside the carefully structured walled garden of Mark Zuckerberg. Sure, they can simulcast their Facebook status onto Twitter, but it is a much different to easily set-up your Twitter list feed on Facebook. Sure, they gained new friends through Twitter, but did that compare to the hundreds they had on Facebook — and why can’t the two sync easily?
While the web is becoming more open, most internet users still invest in one social media site. This generalization definitely includes my students. The social web remains a parade of “top sites” that we all invest in until the next one emerges (just like what happened during the MySpace to Facebook transition). It is not that I want my students on Twitter or any other social network. I would like to think that someday, though, that the site they spend their time on will be irrelevant. The hope is that the big walled gardens, like Facebook, continue to open up their systems. That way, it doesn’t matter what site you run your social media presence from, we all can connect seamlessly.
It is interesting to see what still comes across the class feed. From my students last week we had one general school announcement; multiple homework questions; one homework reminder; one instance of a student sharing work for the rest of the class; three unrelated sports tweets; and three relevant current events stories.
While the tweets may have “gone”, my excitement has not. Every time I see a student post a US History related article on our feed, I know students are continuing to think about our material on their own time. Our goal in eleventh grade US History is to make our students well-informed citizens with a firm historical perspective. I cannot effectuate that type of change in one year, but each tweet that comes across is another spark out there of a student who is pressing forward with that objective.